Federal prosecutors have sent out letters to 23 medical-cannabis dispensaries in the region basically saying: Shut down or else. The issue was their location, within 1,000 feet of an "educational facility or other prohibited area."

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For the past few years, as businesses associated with medical marijuana have proliferated in Western Washington, federal prosecutors have taken mostly a hands-off approach.

On Thursday, however, the feds issued the clearest threat yet to 23 medical-cannabis dispensaries in the region: Shut down or else. The issue was their location, within 1,000 feet of an “educational facility or other prohibited area.”

In letters sent by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the targeted businesses were warned they could be charged criminally if they didn’t close within 30 days. Their property, including profits and the buildings themselves, could also be seized under federal law, which prohibits the sale of marijuana, the letters warned. They were sent to both the business operators and their landlords.

“Please take the necessary steps to discontinue the sale and/or distribution of marijuana … ,” reads the letter, signed by Matthew G. Barnes, special agent in charge of Seattle’s DEA office. He warned more dispensaries may be targeted.

Neither the DEA nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which supported the action, would release the names of the 23 dispensaries or even disclose which cities they’re in. Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said releasing the information would be “inappropriate,” since the businesses had not yet received the letters.

“We need to enforce one message for our students: Drugs have no place in or near our schools,” U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said in a news release.

The action follows a pattern elsewhere in the country. Dozens of such warnings were sent in Colorado, and those dispensaries closed or moved. In California, more than 300 letters have been sent out, primarily targeting businesses near schools.

The U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington sent warnings to 55 businesses and landlords in April 2011 after hearing complaints about nine dispensaries operating near schools, including one with a large billboard two blocks from an elementary school. Those that didn’t shut down were raided before the 30-day time period was up.

“I think the federal government has sent a pretty clear message in the last couple of years that they’re just not going to tolerate cannabis distribution within 1,000 feet of schools,” said Kurt Boehl, an attorney who represents medical-marijuana businesses.

“Since we’re seeing such a proliferation in Seattle maybe they’re just trying to regulate that a little bit,” he added.

Dispensaries have sprung up, in part, because authorized patients say it’s hard to grow marijuana themselves.

Washington’s medical-marijuana law doesn’t authorize them, however. An effort to legalize and regulate them passed the state Legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, leaving Washington with one of the most unregulated medical-marijuana industries in the country.

Seattle, home to more than 140 medical-marijuana-related businesses, lightly regulates them, requiring only basic business licenses and compliance with city building-safety codes.

“The dispensaries that are located within 1,000 feet of schools are fair game for federal action, as the owners/operators know and have been told by the city,” Kimberly Mills, communications director for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, said in an email.

The City Council will hold public meetings to consider zoning restrictions this fall.

Aaron Pelley, a medical-cannabis attorney, said finding a spot outside a 1,000-foot radius can be challenging — and confusing, as it’s not always clear where “prohibited areas” are.

“The problem in Washington is we don’t have a dispensary law,” said Alison Holcomb, campaign manager for Initiative 502, a November ballot measure that would legalize marijuana. “Dispensary owners are at a loss to know how best to regulate their activities.”

The letters continue a trend in medical-marijuana states of federal authorities primarily using civil, not criminal, enforcement against dispensaries. Federal tax audits, restricted access to banking and threats of property forfeiture have “a chilling effect” for medical-marijuana operators, said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a national medical-marijuana advocacy group.

In some cases, dispensaries have closed out of fear they could be targeted, said Hermes. “It has had a pretty devastating effect.”

I-502 requires marijuana storefronts to be outside the 1,000-foot boundaries.

In Seattle, a medical-marijuana trade group has recommended storefronts stay at least 500 feet from schools, but the city’s density makes that difficult, said Greta Carter, executive director of Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics, which has tried to set voluntary compliance standards for dispensaries. “It’s something we’ve always struggled with,” she said.

She questions why the same rules don’t apply to places like Walgreens.

“If we have the right security and controls in place, it shouldn’t be an issue, any more than a drugstore,” she said.

Several Seattle dispensary operators contacted Thursday said they had not received a letter but had feared federal authorities would take this approach. One dispensary operator, who didn’t want her name used because she has young children in school, said she tried to ensure her storefront location was not in a school zone before opening.

“I would totally move if I got a letter. I want to do the right thing,” she said.

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com